White House

Trump is on the brink as U.S. warns Iran over missile tests

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn issued a warning to Iran during the daily news briefing at the White House on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.
National Security Adviser Michael Flynn issued a warning to Iran during the daily news briefing at the White House on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. AP

The White House put Iran “on notice” Wednesday over what it said were a series of provocations, giving Americans – and the world – a chance to see how President Donald Trump handles a foreign crisis. Top aides would not rule out military action.

In a toughly worded warning, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lambasted “destabilizing behavior” by Iran this week, noting the testing of a medium-range ballistic missile and an attack by Iranian-backed militants in Yemen against a Saudi naval vessel.

Reading the statement to journalists at the White House, Flynn cast blame on the Obama administration, which he said had acted in concert with the United Nations, for offering Iran agreements that were “weak and ineffective.”

“Instead of being thankful to the United States for these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened,” Flynn said. “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

Flynn did not further explain what “on notice” means, and U.S. officials, in a conference call with journalists, did not lay out a clear path forward. It was uncertain whether the Trump administration had communicated its concerns directly to the Iranian government.

We are considering a whole range of options. We are in a deliberative process.

Senior administration official

“We’re going to take appropriate action,” said a senior administration official with knowledge of the situation who was not allowed to speak publicly by name, as a matter of practice. “We are considering a whole range of options. We are in a deliberative process.”

Experts said the U.S. administration and Iran were testing each other and that frictions might escalate further.

Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, had used his personal relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to defuse a crisis when Iran seized a U.S. naval vessel in January 2016 just before President Obama was scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress.

During his election campaign, Trump had called the nuclear agreement with Iran “one of the dumbest deals ever” and said he might rip it up, though he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have since backtracked on the pledge. Co-sponsoring the agreement are the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the European Union.

Adding to the sense that the administration was rushing to send messages to potential adversaries in its second week in office, Trump and his daughter Ivanka flew by helicopter to Dover Air Force Base for the arrival of the remains of a U.S. commando who had been killed early Sunday in Yemen during a raid on al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Pentagon has identified the commando as William “Ryan” Owens, a 36-year-old chief special warfare operator, of Peoria, Illinois. Several news outlets have said Owens was a member of SEAL Team 6, a highly specialized naval counterterrorism unit.

His death occurred during the first counterterrorism operation of the Trump presidency.

Iran’s latest ballistic missile test, which occurred Sunday, is not the first such test since the 2015 nuclear accord. Last March, Iran tested two ballistic missiles.

It was, I think, a very deliberate shot across the bow of the Trump administration.

Suzanne Maloney, Iran expert, Brookings Institution

“The Iranians, I think, were testing the water with the missile earlier this week. It was, I think, a very deliberate shot across the bow of the Trump administration to see what kind of response they would receive,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Maloney said Flynn’s statement did not set a clear red line for Iran and that Tehran might want to ratchet up its tensions with Washington.

“Unless the Iranians have a very clear understanding of what the administration considers to be red lines, they are going to test further whether the bark is worse than the bite,” she said. “The administration’s approach to Iran will be to dare the Iranians to walk away from the (nuclear) deal.”

Foreign Minister Zarif said Tuesday that his nation’s ballistic missiles were not designed to carry nuclear warheads and were “not part of the nuclear deal,” according to news reports from Tehran.

The Trump administration rejects that argument, and Flynn said the test was “in defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran ‘not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.’ ”

Iran is deeply involved in the civil war in Yemen, a proxy battleground in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, a fellow oil powerhouse. Both nations seek dominance in the Middle East.

U.S. special forces conducted a clandestine raid in central Yemen on Sunday that went badly wrong. Not only was the Navy commando killed, three more service members were wounded. Houthi militants now control much of the country, with deep Iranian support.

They train, they equip, they advise, they are key supporters.

Senior administration official, speaking of Iran’s support for Yemeni Houthi militants

“They train, they equip, they advise, they are key supporters,” said another senior administration official, also speaking only on the condition of anonymity.

Houthi militants released a video earlier this week showing a massive explosion aboard a Saudi frigate off the western coast of Yemen. The blast killed two crew members and wounded three, the Saudi state news agency SPA said. Conflicting reports emerged over whether a suicide boat had collided with the vessel or it had been hit by a guided missile.

The Pentagon supports the Saudi-led coalition that’s fighting the Houthis, a battle that dates to 2015, when President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi fled into exile.

In October, U.S. officials accused the Houthis of firing three missiles at a U.S. Navy destroyer, and the Pentagon responded by knocking out three coastal radar sites in Yemen with cruise missiles.

Other factors play into the conflict between Iran and the Trump administration, including anger in Tehran over last Friday’s U.S. decision to halt entry for all travelers from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations. U.S. naval forces are engaged this week in a joint exercise off Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf.

Tehran policymakers also are unsure how to read early signals from Washington and Moscow over a rapprochement.

“There are lots of ideas floating around that are making Iran a little nervous about where the Trump administration is going,” said Matthew McInnis, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

“Where does Russia fall on this? That is the key variable,” McInnis said.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

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